Review: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner is equal parts beautiful, emotionally damaging, and incredible. I absolutely adored it. Because who doesn’t like a book that will nearly make you cry?? Obviously everyone loves that kind of thing. For sure. This story is gut-wrenching and precious and inspiring and hopeful and balances darkness and hope using some of the best storytelling I’ve experienced in a long time. 9781783443819

The story is about three protagonists: Dill, Lydia, and Travis. They all live in a tiny gossiping town that is smothering and suffocating them. Dill’s father was a preacher but is now in jail for being a peadophile. So basically everyone hates and distrusts him and he’s severely depressed. Lydia has a loving family but is about to leave town after highschool to pursue further education. Aka she’s leaving all her friends behind. Aka her friends that are not doing very well at all. Travis has an abusive family but he’s the sweetest most loving boy who is obsessed with a fantasy series and uses it as an escape. They all need each other. But everything is falling apart.

It’s a story of survival and friendship. Normally I don’t even like books narrated by three protagonists, because it’s confusing. But Dill, Lydia, and Travis were all so different and complex and relatable and heartbreaking that I loved them all. I can’t even choose a favourite!

 

Brief Overview Of The Characters:

  • DILL: He’s the son of a preacher who’s just been imprisoned for sexual charges and EVERYBODY knows Dill and is disgusted by him. Tiny backwards town, remember? Not very forgiving. His mother hates him, school is hell, he’s got NO FUTURE because he’s stuck in this town and his best friend Lydia is leaving for college and basically he was tragic and adorable and quiet and nearly broken and I couldn’t love him more. He does lash out irrationally with passive-aggressive arguments with Lydia. But I get it?!? When you face losing someone, sometimes you push them away first to help dull the pain.
  • LYDIA: she’s a super famous fashion blogger and only 17 #NoImNotJealousHaHaHa. She’s fashionable, super sassy, epically fabulous, definitely not skinny, and has a future of success paved out before her. I adored her relationship with her parents, too! The banter is hilarious and perfect. I love how she as flawed and flawless.
  • TRAVIS: He was the most adorable dork to ever dork in the universe. He’s obsessed with fantasy, specifically this trilogy which he can’t stop talking about. He’s big and kind and unassuming and just downright lovely. Books about lovely boys need to be more of a thing. I adore how his love of fantasy started turning him towards writing, as an escape from his abusive household, and that was beautiful written.

The writing is also absolutely fantastic. It was heavily dialogue centred and balanced hilarious humour with poignant scenes. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I even laughed out loud several times actually! (My dog looked mildly displeased at the noise.) And I loved the contrast of their lives: Dill slowly fading to nothing, Lydia being rich and full of purpose, Travis finding escape in writing.

“And anyway, how is a coffee shop Christian?”
“It implies that normal coffee shops are satanic.”
“Which they totally are. It’s like, can I please just get a cup of coffee without having to kneel before Lucifer and pledge my eternal soul?”
“Here’s your latte. Will that be cash, credit, or the blood of a virgin?”

It really tackles mental illness and it does so perfectly. Depression is not an easy topic and yet The Serpent King really captures the complexity of it.

The Serpent King is definitely an extraordinary book. I am of the loud opinion that everyone should read it. Immediately. It’s definitely a coming of age story about friendship and trying to figure out your future and what you want. It has romance, but it’s not overly romantic. The writing will sweep you along and it will, almost definitely, stab you in the chest one or nine times. It was brutal and hopeful which is a perfect combination.

 

[BUY NOW]

Review: Bro by Helen Chebatte

I picked up Bro by Helen Chebatte particularly because it promised a) diversity, b) a fight club (!!) and c) an Australian setting. And I love Aussie books, I truly do! And I particularly love ones that acknowledge what a diverse and multi-cultural country we are. And Bro totally rules this.

9781760125509

About The Book:

What happens when you mix teenage boys, a fight club and ethnic rivalries? You get war. Romeo Makhlouf knows the rules. Stick with your own kind. Don’t dob on your mates or even on your enemies. Respect the family. But even unwritten rules are made for breaking. Fight clubs, first loves and family ties are pushed to the limit in Helen Chebatte’s explosive debut novel.

 

But despite Bro ticking a lot of “this book should be awesome” boxes…it ultimately wasn’t my kind of book. (Teenage boys, peoples, they’re just…such stinky, alien creatures.) But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good book! And I think it will definitely appeal to teens, particularly boys, and it definitely was a fast and interesting read.

Basically Romeo (yes that’s his name!) is Lebanese and falls into a lot of default rivalries at school. When the book starts, he walks you through all the “cliques”, from the Asians to the Lebanese to the Aussies to the Islanders. It’s all pretty “stick-with-the-bros-of-your-own-culture”, which I found pretty sad. But I guess not unrealistic. And the boys’ cliques were definitely like family! All the Lebanese boys absolutely stood up for each other and took exactly no hasselling from anyone else before they were out for revenge. So obviously you know where this is heading right?

Someone gets offended. FIGHTS START.

I was a bit annoyed that the big “offence” was basically over a girl. Again, realistic….But it seemed shallow to read about.

Oh and yes, and it’s very Australia. It’s absolutely stuffed with Aussie slang. I actually struggled with some of it, despite being an Aussie myself, because I’d never heard some of the phrases. But I was quite surprised it had next to no swearing in it. I felt that was the only unrealistic liberty it took…but it does make the book appropriate for any age audience, so kudos to it there.

I found the ethnic rivalries very interesting…because they seemed in place BEFORE the boys even had issues with each other. Like it’s Romeo vs Palmer. Lebanese vs Australian. The book also really talks about what it’s like to be from a different ethnicity but raised in Australia. Like are you an Aussie if you’re born in Australia, but live entirely with Lebanese culture?

Bro is definite grimy, punchy, Australian contemporary that younger teens will totally enjoy! The characters aren’t the most dimensional things I’ve ever encountered, but they do ask some BIG questions and get you thinking. Also you get to know THE BRO CODE, which — if you’re a completely deluded person like I who lives in a fantasy book — is really interesting. Also there’s Lebanese food involved. And brawls. Punchy, punchy, bro.

[purchase here]

Review: Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa

Fans of the Impossible Life is an exceptionally magnificent YA contemporary and I AM SO HAPPY! I felt totally caught up in this book. I wanted to laugh and cry and maybe howl (because heartbreak) and I definitely ended up craving pizza. I am a fan of this book. (Get it?! Fan…because…okay, never mind.)

 

ABOUT THE BOOK:

9781509805143Fans of the Impossible Life is the story of love, loss, growing up and the magic – and terror – of finding friends who truly see the person you are and the person you’re trying to become. It’s a story about rituals and love, and of those transformative friendships that burn hot and change you, but might not last. Sebby and his best friend Mira together craft a world of magic rituals and impromptu road trips designed to fix the broken parts of their lives. Jeremy is the painfully shy art nerd who’s been in self-imposed isolation after an incident that ruined his last year of school. When he sees Sebby for the first time across the school lawn, it’s as if he’s been expecting him.

 

I really adored how it was written 3 styles! There are three narrators — Jeremy, Mira, and Sebby. And each one uses 1st, 3rd, or 2nd person! I’ve never read a book that used all 3 before and it worked so well.

The best part of contemporaries, for me, is how character driven they are. I loved all three of our messed up, emotional narrators. But let’s have a quick run-down on each, okay? Okay.

  • MIRA: She’s a completely relatable character and I adored her! She wasn’t skinny and struggled with her self-image, and she loved thrift shopping and she had chronic fatigue and depression. I wailed as people just dismissed her depression as “nothing” and left her to struggle alone. I feel like this book represented depression honestly and realistically.
  • SEBBY: He’s a broken, messed-up and completely sassy dude. I basically felt he was an adorable little…fool. He makes such bad decisions! I loved his sass and his quips and how he was an explosion of life and colour and glitter. He’s gay and a foster kid and has had a tortured past.
  • JEREMY: He’s the quiet one, who lives in his protective shell after Something Bad Happened. He did come out of his shell a bit, but he stayed quiet. Proof that you can have friends and a life and still be reserved! Yay for quiet people! Also he’s an artist and questioning his sexuality and basically just trying to survive highschool.

These three definitely go down as one of my favourite literary friendships.

Except, there was one thing that bothered me: Mira’s “chronic fatigued” just vanished from the storyline. NOT OKAY. Just because your life is going well doesn’t mean your illnesses will vanish. I felt it wasn’t a fair representation to those with chronic fatigue.

But that aside this was simply a magical book. It’s about growing up and sadness and struggling with figuring out who you are. It’s about love. It’s about confusion. It’s about FRIENDSHIP (which I think is incredibly important and always fabulous to read about).  This was everything I wanted in a YA contemporary — sassy, relatable, funny and occasionally heart-wrenching.

I AM A FAN.

(….I had to say it. I just did.)

 

[PURCHASE HERE]

Awarded Children’s Information Books

EmuThis year’s Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Eve Pownall Award for Information Books forms an impressive list. Four of the six titles focus on an aspect of Australian history.

Emu (one of the ‘Nature Storybooks’ series from Walker Books) is natural history, however, and upholds the quality of last year’s Crichton and Queensland Literary awarded Big Red Kangaroo. It is written by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Graham Byrne and combines literary and factual texts in an engaging package for young readers.

Coming of Age

The other title that isn’t historical is for the opposite end of the age spectrum – mature secondary, although chapters could be used for younger readers in high school. Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia is edited by Amra Pajalic & Demet Divaroren (Allen & Unwin) and a number of its contributors have appeared on ABC TV’s Q&A. The contributors write about their experiences growing up as a Muslim. An important feature is the diversity within Muslim groups, also based on the country the writers or their parents are from.

Randa Abdel-Fattah (Does My Head Look Big in This?) writes about body image; Hazem El Masri, former rugby league star,  among other things, explains a core difference between Islam and Christianity – Muslims don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, died on the cross or was raised from death; Hazem’s wife changed some of her school’s culture by lobbying for the opportunity for Muslims to pray; and former Miss World Australia, Sabrina Houssami, laments that white Australian girls wouldn’t be her friend.

Tea and SugarTea and Sugar Christmas by Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen (National Library of Australia) is a sumptuous volume, and is also a notable CBCA picture book this year. Robert Ingpen is the only Australian illustrator to have won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal. All of his books are stunning. This one showcases the train that serviced the settlements along the Nullabor Plains from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie. Aboriginal and Afghan people helped build and maintain the 1050 km of rail. The book starts as an appealing literary narrative about young Kathleen who is waiting for the first Thursday in December when Father Christmas travels with gifts. This story is followed by information in non-fiction form.Mary's Australia

 

Mary Mackillop was a girl when Victoria became a state and she was twelve during the Eureka Stockade. Pamela Freeman juxtaposes Mary’s life and time caring for the poor and educating children with the years when Australia became a nation in Mary’s Australia: How Mary Mackillop Changed Australia (Black Dog Books, Walker Books).

Audacity

 

Audacity: Stories of Heroic Australians in Wartime by Carlie Walker and illustrated by Brett Hatherly, is another excellent publication from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The title comes from a stained-glass window at the Australian War Memorial. Each chapter features a person, including women, and the war they were involved in and also highlights their outstanding attributes, such as courage or leadership.

 

The A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land by Simon Barnard (Text Publishing) is coffee-table size and is set between 1803 and 1853. The research and illustrative processes are intricate and include cut-away pictures of buildings. This book is full of fascinating and gory facts which will intrigue older readers. A-Z

Archimede Fusillo talks about Dead Dog In The Still Of The Night

Dead Dog In The Still Of The NightAward-winning Australian author, Archimede Fusillo delves deep into what it is to be a man in his latest coming-of-age novel for young adults, Dead Dog In The Still Of The Night. 

The story follows the journey of Primo as he attempts to navigate his way though his final year of school with an emotionally brittle mother, a father suffering from dementia, a troubled brother and a demanding older girlfriend. When Primo crashes his father’s prized Fiat Bambino he’s forced to make some difficult decisions. Without strong role models, his choices are dubious and ultimately lead to more trouble. Primo discovers that there’s more to being a man than just posturing as one.

JF: Congratulations on your new book, Dead Dog In The Still Of The Night, Archimede Fusillo. You have carved a niche in the YA market writing about boys seeking an identity. Can you explain the motivation for this?

AF: I have always thought that boys and young men were more than simply the sum of their adventures. It seems to me that too often males in general are portrayed by the mass media as being one dimensional, with little to draw upon apart from angst, self-destruction and a high tolerance for drink and mayhem.

All I ever set out to do was explore what I saw was the deeper more emotional, more humane side of the male gender. I was brought up surrounded by boys, young men and older men who were not carbon copies of one another.

What spoke to me was the breadth and depth of dignity, a sense of caring, and yes, even a degree of self-loathing that permeated the life of boys seeking to discover what it was that made them men, what the parameters and boundaries and expectations were and are that help define one’s sense of selfhood.

JF: There are some deeply flawed male characters in Dead Dog in the Still of the Night. Is this how you see society in general?

Archie Fusillo profile pic at TLC June 2014 croppedAF: Being flawed is a human not a “male” condition. Perhaps it’s just that with the male propensity to mask hurt and pain and sorrow and grief under masks of macho bravado, the flaws are more highlighted than might otherwise be the case.

I’m not a sociologist, or even an anthropologist. I don’t have answers to why some people – male and female, are flawed more obviously than others. All I know is that the machinations set in motion when people seek to hide their flaws, or cannot control them, make for powerful human stories.

In Dead Dog In The Still Of The Night, Primo’s mother is flawed too. Otherwise how to explain her inability (unwillingness?) for so many years to make a stand against all the emotional damage her husband brings to bear upon her family.

The male characters in the novel are flawed, but not damaged beyond redemption –  at least not Primo. Their flaws are compounded, perhaps even brought about by, their inability to put others ahead of themselves. It takes a very strong sense of other, a willingness to look at the world through another’s eyes, and walk about in their shoes, to be able to identify clearly one’s own shortcomings. And perhaps this is the greatest flaw of all of the males in this novel – their inability to reflect upon another, let alone their own actions before those same actions bring about dire consequences.

JF: As with your other YA novels, family is at the centre of this story, rather than a peer group. Why do you focus on family?

The DonsAF: Family is the centre of the world I know and have grown up in. Italians see family as the core of who they are – as a race, as a nation. It is inbred in me to believe in the sanctity of family, and therefore in the power of family to both destroy and create, to love and to loath, to offer and to take. A peer group is by and large an artificial construct that exists outside of bloodlines and blood obligations. The most fascinating, the most powerful, the most engaging stories often begin with the individual caught within the web of the family-its expectations, its dramas, its demands, and its rewards.

With this in mind, why wouldn’t I focus on the pull and push of family life when I want to give my characters the motivation for questioning everything they have come to believe about themselves and the world around them.

JF: The novel’s main character, Primo, is forced to make choices without the benefit of strong male role models. What impact does this have on him and how do you see this playing out more generally in society?

AF: It is a natural aspect of growing up that we look to others for some signposting about where we are at any stage of our lives. Every civilization has rites and rituals where boys look up to their elders for guidance, and the role of the older male role model can’t be overestimated. Choices made without guidance can’t be measured until after the event, so role models can act as a sounding board, helping us avoid some of the pitfalls in life.

Primo’s choices are made according to his own still very limited view and understanding of the world and how it operates – so there is ample room for him to misread cues, not least of all those that require a maturity beyond his youthful years to fully appreciate. Of course he will make mistakes. How big those mistakes are, and how they will impact on him and his family is at the core of the novel’s plot.

JF: As a father, how do you handle the job of role model?

AF: All I can do, all I have ever tried to do is listen, try not to prejudge-and more significantly, try to remember what it was like to be a boy and then a young man.

JF: What’s next for you?

AF: I am working on a new YA novel about young love, poor decisions, and the comedy of being in a big, loud, unashamedly loving family-unsettled by the oddball, unsettling, blended family that moves in next door!

Oh – and Josie Montano and I have co-authored a YA novel titled Veiled Secrets which has been bought by the US publisher Solstice – due out in hard and electronic copy early 2015.

JF: Thanks for visiting, Archimede. Good luck with Dead Dog In the Still Of The Night and your upcoming books.

Julie Fison writes for children and young adults. Her books include the Hazard River adventure series for young readers, Choose Your Own Ever After, a pick-a-path series that lets the reader decide how the story goes, and Counterfeit Love for young adults.

Review – Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

9780340822807This is an absolutely wonderful coming-of-age novel by a writer who cannot put a foot wrong. David Mitchell doesn’t just get inside the head of a thirteen year old boy but brings teenage adolescence to life like I have never read before. David Mitchell captures the innocence, the naivety, the pain and the joy so acutely that you are transported back to your own time as a teenager.

Jason Taylor is navigating the thirteenth year of his life and it is of course a tumultuous one. It is 1982 and Britain is about to go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. At home something is happening between Jason’s parents and his sister is about to leave for university. Meanwhile at school Jason tries, fails and tries again to fit in with the other boys.

The novel brilliantly captures and portrays the inner battle everybody goes through over who we are and who we want to be. Jason is desperate to fit in with the other boys and stave of the bullies. He suppresses parts of himself to fit in; his bookishness, his poetry, his stammer. His loyalty to true friends is tested by their relative popularity. Everyday is a constant tightrope where one false move could see him become the class laughing-stock. David Mitchell mixes this all in with the ups and downs of life as seen through the eyes of a thirteen year old boy.

I’m loving how all of David Mitchell’s novels are interconnected no matter how unrelated they appear. I could seriously live off nothing but David Mitchell books but with only two more books to read I’m also dreading running out of new material.

Buy the book here…

Player Profile: Richard Beasley, author of Me and Rory MacBeath

6994290Richard Beasley, author of Me and Rory MacBeath

Tell us about your latest creation:

“Me and Rory Macbeath” is a novel set in the 1970’s about the friendship between two boys (Jake and Rory) who meet at the start of the summer when they are both twelve. They have the kind of fun together that kids did in summer back in the 70’s. Rory has a very violent father though, and the childhood of both boys is ended abruptly by a terrible event that happens as a result of that violence. In the trial that follows, the female defence barrister is the kind of person I would like to be a member of my chambers now, although we would probably have to up the wine budget.

Me and Rory MacBeathWhere are you from / where do you call home?:

I was born in Sydney, grew up in Adelaide, and have lived in Sydney most of my adult life, or at least the part of my adult life that has involved being a lawyer/barrister.  I have never lived more than 1 kilometre from Randwick Racecourse. My bank manager and my trustee can tell you why

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?:

When I was a kid I wanted to be a test cricketer. That was in the 1970’s. I still want to be a test cricketer. It looks like I still have a chance. The Dream lives on.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?:

Me and Rory Macbeath. It’s a better story than my first two books. And it has much less swearing.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?:

I wrote my first novel when I was a “baby-barrister”. I had a ‘readers room’ on my floor, which was literally an old broom closet, about 1metre x 1 metre. It’s famous now for having had “Hell has Harbour Views” written in it, and for having the child of one of our floor members conceived in it. My second novel I wrote in my current room in chambers. It is a windowless room, with 1960’s wood panelling. It’s the sort of room that requires even my clients to take 3 Prozac tablets before walking inside. It’s not a creative space. I wrote “Me and Rory Macbeath” at home, in our study, with our dog at my feet. That was much nicer. She’s much better company than other barristers too, and gave me more incisive feedback on my first draft than they or my previous publisher did.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?:

I love reading Carl Hiassen. He’s the funniest writer ever, and I really like crime books that don’t have police in them. For more serious reading, I’ve loved everything by Cormac McCarthy I’ve read over the last few years, and Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?:

“The Catcher in the Rye”. My Year 10 English teacher recommended it. He started calling me “Holden” shortly afterwards. My mother still calls me Holden. And “The Great Gatsby”. It’s very hard for me not to order a custom made shirt every time I think about that book, which is daily.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?:

A male barrister who doesn’t want to be Atticus Finch hasn’t read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I’d kind of like to be Winston Smith from 1984, because the world, its governments, and big corporations all make me feel like him sometimes. Obviously I want a different ending, with Winston leading some kind of overthrow of Big Brother.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?:

I cook a lot. I am really good. I’ve watched all the celebrity chefs on TV. I am as good as them all, and tidier. I would win Masterchef easily if I went on it, but I don’t like “dorm” accomodation, and would miss my family.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?:

Red meat. Red wine.

Who is your hero? Why?:

In Politics: Gough Whitlam. I like the huge size of his vision. I was only 11 when he was dismissed, but I thought it was dodgy even then. As someone who now has legal expertise, I now think it was illegal. I want Gough reinstated.

In Books: F Scott Fitzgerald. I learntThe Great Gatsby off by heart when I was 17. There will never be another book like that for me. I bored dozens of girls reciting it from when I was 18 until I was about 25. They all married men who strongly resemble Tom Buchanan for some reason.

Music: John Lennon. I just love his songs. I love his playfulness with words. I liked his attitude. I even like Yoko.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?:

The survival of good bookshops is a key. That is one part of retail that I hope survives the online revolution and finds a way to thrive. I’m kind of optimistic though. My kids read a HELL of a lot more books than I did when I was in Primary School. So do their friends and classmates. So that make me hopeful.

Website URL: You don’t want a lawyer
Twitter URL: @richardcbeasley

Review – Me and Rory MacBeath

Me and Rory MacBeathI fell instantly in love with this book. There are echoes of Jasper Jones, Tim Winton’s Breath and Past The Shallows but this novel stands on it’s own two feet. It is truly something special. It is a combination of so many wonderful parts. Part coming-of-age story, part reminiscence of summers lost. It is, at it’s heart, a story about friendship and family and the bonds they form that either make us stronger or drag us down.

The story centres on Rose Avenue in the suburbs of Adelaide in the summer of 1977. A seemingly idyllic street where everybody knows each other, sometimes a bit too much. This street is the centre of Jake Taylor’s universe where he lives with his Mum, Harry, a successful barrister. Jake is 13 and about to start high school. But before that the whole of summer is ahead of him filled with swimming, cricket and fishing as well as a new neighbour and friend, Rory MacBeath. Jake’s not sure about Rory, he’s from Glasgow and can’t swim, bowl or bat but he can fish. By summer’s end their bond of friendship is rock solid. But as the MacBeath’s settle into Rose Avenue Jake begins to learn that all is not well in their household.

As Jake enters High School his world begins to change. Friendships are tested and strained as Jake’s world, and his friends’, branch out from Rose Avenue. As Jake tries to navigate this new world, with its new troubles and problems, the troubles on Rose Avenue boil over with tragic consequences and the enigmatic and irrepressible Harry is the only one who can do anything to help. But it may be too late to fix anything at all.

Harry Taylor is the soul of the book and one of those rare characters you meet in fiction that you hope and wish are really out there in the world. She’s the only constant in Jake’s life and is always ready to fight the good fight, in the courtroom or in the front yard, even when that good fight is stacked against her.

This is a book that hits every note in the emotional spectrum; I laughed, I cried, I cheered, I booed, I dared to hope, I shook my fist at the world. It is a story about growing up and how that changes us deep inside. It is also about how we learn who we are and what we’re made of, the lessons learned and ignored, and the friendships forged and broken and that we have to stand up for these things one way or another. But the way we stand up for these things is as important as what we stand up for and the courage to do that can be hard to find.

Buy the book here…